January 6, 2011

Block that Metaphor

Marshall Scott has a thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection posted at the Daily Episcopalian.

One thought it started for me is the problem with biblical metaphors, and how they are used. Argument or instruction by metaphor or analogy is always a tad perilous; but how much more over time when the metaphor may no longer click quite so well? Must we constrain reality so that the metaphor still works?

Part of the difficulty, it seems to me, with Paul's analogies and metaphors is that he took metaphors from his own cultural milieu and applied them to the eternal verities he was attempting to describe. Problem is, too often we stick with the metaphor instead of dealing with the thing being metaphorically described. Paul says, for example, that the church in relation to Christ is as a woman in relation to her husband — as husbands and wives were understood in his time and place.

Things get even stranger when, because of the analogical relationship something eternal bears to something temporal, the thing that is temporal comes to be seen as just as permanent or eternal as that for which it was only a handy illustration or metaphor. Christ will always be the head of the church, but there is no reason to think (even if Paul, as a man of his times, did) that a husband is everlastingly to be the "head" over his wife. It is by such processes that is (or in this case was) becomes ought to be. 

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Andrewdb said...

My Grandmother, of blessed memory, always used to quote her father the Dutch Reform minister - when reading scripture you need to remember who was writing it, when they were writing, and who they were writing it for.

Paul said...

Thus the term metaphor. If I read "my love is like a red, red rose" I don't expect to see thorns.

Erika Baker said...

Thank you for that, Tobias!
I suppose the difference is that some people don't think that Paul simply described human relationships in his metaphors but that he actually defined them.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, all. It is part of the old "description / prescription" dichotomy, too. I don't think there's much doubt that Paul thought women were to be inferior to men as "a creation ordinance." He was just as ill suited to distinguish what he saw from what he thought was divinely given as anyone else. Cultural lenses are the most difficult to remove -- including my own; hence the need for the corrective of listening across difference: indaba!

Tim said...

To key off of Andrewb's comment, I would append to that list 'why they were writing it'. Some of Paul's missives are principally encouragement, some principally education and some (ok, most) are 'corrective' in nature.

That said, use of example, metaphor and analogy are arguably the most common ways of explanation, taking something that folks know and using it to explain what folks doesn't.

In a more general sense, however, I strenuously agree with you. The finger points to the moon...the metaphor for the Truth behind it. Don't confuse the finger for the Truth.

Lionel Deimel said...

Tim is exactly write about analogies. They use relationships thought to be understood to explain relationships that are not understood. Marriage can be used to explain something of Christ’s relationship to the Church. We make a severe logical and theological error when we then suggest that marriage is the analogue of Christ’s relation to the Church. This puts too much of a burden on marriage, because we invest much more in the Christ-Church relationship that is not explained by the marriage analogy.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

Scott is quite wrong. Interesting, but wrong.

Paul's point is that the church is like bodies, as Paul understood bodies. Better biology than Paul's does not mean that Paul meant "the church is like the truth of human bodies, whatever science ends up thinking of that" nor "the church is like all the different kinds of bodies as the world comes to know of more kinds."

This is the point of the analogy. Paul is saying, "hey, this is what the body is like, and the church is like that." Your warning that we cannot fix our understanding of bodies at Paul's is right, and precisely because Paul's point isn't to talk about bodies at all.

For the 21st century. Paul teaches that the church is like the 1st century idea of the body. And that analogy remains as correct as always. The fact that the 21st century idea of bodies is different from the 1st century is irrelevant, because the analogy isn't really to "body, whatever that is", but to "body as Paul understands it."

This is an *essential* point, because it is critical to *any* understanding of metaphor in ancient texts. Failure to get this point wrong leads to people thinking that the "headship" metaphor must be eternal. And yet, it is true that the relation of Church to Christ *is* just like the imagined 1st century idea of the ideal marriage. Sure, we have a different view of what marriage should be, but this only means that a 21st century writer might look to a different metaphor.

By no means should we conclude from a preference for egalitarian marriage that ipso facto, the relation of Church to Christ is egalitarian.

What Scott is doing is saying, basically, that Paul's understanding of the nature of the Church was deficient, and all the metaphor is beside the point. And in that contest, I'm gonna just say that I think Paul understood it better than Scott.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Tim, Lionel, Thomas...

Thomas, in particular, highlights what I was trying to get at: the perils involved when the "type" shifts in our understanding yet we still apply it to the antitype.

Thanka again to all.